Plans are in place to replace the grass at Hoch Field at Gardiner High School with artificial turf. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

It was Nate Stubbert’s first season as the athletic director at Gardiner Area High School. And he already knew what his big project needed to be.

Hoch Field was a mess. The persistent rain that comes each fall had turned the grass into mud that was never able to dry. Games had to be moved to new sites — and the ones that were played became adventures for all the wrong reasons.

I found out pretty quickly how poor the drainage is for our football field and our soccer field, particularly,” Stubbert said. “(They) were terrible. … It really brought the field conditions to the forefront. That’s when (principal) Chad Kempton and I seriously started talking about what it would take to get a turf field going.”

Fast forward a few months, and Gardiner is on track to become the next school to add an artificial turf field — though the school is in a race against the clock. The school board unanimously approved the field, but Stubbert’s goal all along has been to break ground May 1 in order to have the field ready for the start of the fall season.

To do that, Gardiner would need to be able to fund the field in by the start of next month. Stubbert approximated that the project, which will include new LED lights to replace Hoch’s halogen lights and a renovated ticket gate, will cost $700,000. On Friday, he said the school is $245,000 shy of its goal. The school is looking to pay for the field entirely through donations, rather than tax dollars.

Stubbert acknowledged that the timetable is “aggressive,” but sounded confident in hitting the self-imposed deadline.

I don’t have any doubt we’re going to get this done. We’re just hoping to get it done now,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to go away. I think there’s too much momentum, too many people have committed to it.”

Turf fields are clearly a growing trend in Maine. According to the Maine Principals Association, 18 schools now have artificial surfaces, though only four — Lewiston, Presque Isle, Hampden and, most recently, Messalonskee — are in the northern part of the state.

Stubbert, however, said this project is a matter of necessity, rather than trying to follow other schools’ lead. Last fall, the boys and girls soccer teams’ senior nights had to be moved off site when Hoch Field proved unplayable.

“It was absolutely a functionality thing,” he said. “It’s about our athletes not having to play on terrible field conditions and not having to worry about whether their games are going to be cancelled or their senior night’s going to be cancelled again because of field conditions. It was a nightmare and I don’t want to have to go through that again. … And it’s not something I want them to have to experience again either.”

Football coach Joe White said the sloppy field was an issue by the end of last season, and praised the movement to bring turf to Gardiner.

“It’s probably been a long time coming. The field at Hoch gets a lot of usage, and by late fall it’s pretty much torn up to the point where it’s not irreparable, but unplayable,” he said. “Last fall, that was kind of the last straw. … Football tears it up pretty good, but two or three games between Friday and Monday doesn’t give it a chance to heal.

“Grass is nice, but the way things are going, an artificial surface at Gardiner is a much-needed thing.”

Still, there’s the money component. Main Ex Construction and McGee Construction have offered to provide the earthwork and drainage, which Stubbert estimated takes care of between $250,000 and $260,000 of the bill. Stubbert said the companies will get permanent logos on the field for their contribution.

Getting that donated is enormous,” he said. “With that donation … we said ‘We can’t turn back. Let’s get this thing going.’ “

Stubbert said he’s been trying to get the word out as the school tries to pick up the rest of the bill. The school collects donations at its athletic events, and also offers advertising space on and around the new field. Field sponsorships range up to $25,000, light pole advertisements go for $5,000, and the school also sells bricks between $150 and $500 that will be used to build a recognition wall at the field entrance.

“(It’s) advertising that’s going to get a lot of visibility,” Stubbert said. “We’re just trying to get the word out.”

The field would lead to fewer headaches for the school and its athletic department, not just late in the fall season, but for in the spring as well with teams that always find themselves in a battle with wet fields in late April and early May.

“I got to see it firsthand with Freeport last year. They got their turf field the year before, and in preseason they looked fabulous, (because) they get a start right of the bat,” said Gardiner boys lacrosse coach K.C. Johnson, whose team plays its games on Hoch Field. “They’re not in a gym, they’re not in a parking lot, they’re playing live lacrosse from the get-go.”

The benefits go beyond the high school and extend to the Gardiner community and beyond. Stubbert said that youth organizations will have access to the facility, the field could support tournaments it wouldn’t otherwise get, and the availability of another turf surface would ease the burden on other high schools and colleges in the area with turf fields that constantly field calls late in the fall or early in the spring from anxious athletic directors.

“For us, it would be a shining star in the community,” Johnson said. “It’s a tool for people from the outside to look in and say ‘Wow, beautiful facility.’ And for football, soccer and all the other sports, it gives us a game-changer.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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